There's been a big upsurge of conservative commentary lashing Barack Obama for his Spanish-language television spot tying John McCain to offensive statements by Rush Limbaugh. The statements are so out of context as to be misleading, and the unstated implication that McCain shares Limbaugh's views on immigration is misleading. Conservatives are right to be upset, and Obama's supporters ought to think less of him for running the ad.
However, the conservatives invariably go on to insist that this proves that Obama is at least as dishonest as McCain, and why aren't the media scrutinizing him the way they have McCain, and it must be because they're LIBERAL LIBERAL LIBERAL.
But the mainstream press is taking Obama to task for his ad. (See here and here, and there's much more if you look.) The problem is that McCain has made many more, and more serious, falsehoods than Obama does. (I explain this, and more, in a new TNR article.) It's not like pundits started questioning McCain's honesty after one or two misleading statements. It's the sustained, blatant indifference to truth he's exhibited that has made many former admirers question his honor.
I think the intent of these complaints is to force the media back into its previous posture of declaring both sides equally wrong no matter how unequal the underlying facts. For instance, NBC's Domenico Montanaro calls a new Obama ad unfair for accusing McCain of having voted to cut spending on education and having proposed to abolish the Department of Education. (This ad is the other piece of evidence conservatives have been citing to show that Obama is just as dishonest as McCain.)
Michael Scherer of Time criticizes Obama for ads that attack McCain's support for Social Security privatization and against support for renewable energy. Why is this unfair? On Social Security, he argues, "Now, it is true that McCain did support President Bush's effort to privatize a portion of Social Security. But it is not true that McCain is running for president on a platform of turning Social Security over to Wall Street."
Well, okay, McCain certainly isn't running on privatization in the sense of hoping every voter is aware of his position on the issue. But he has spoken out in favor of privatization and never retracted his view. In an article Mike cites today on the blog, Steve Schmidt openly defends McCain's privatization plan, while distancing himself from the term "privatization" (which was devised by advocates of privatization but ditched recently when it proved unpopular):
"He's not ever talked about outsourcing Social Security into the private sector," senior adviser Steve Schmidt told reporters Thursday. "What people talk about with regard to personal accounts is giving the American people an ability to have a greater return on an investment -- it could be bond funds, for example."
I can't fathom what problem Mike, who's a good reporter, could possibly have with Obama's ad on Social Security.
As for the energy ad, it's true that McCain says he favors alternative energy subsidies. But there was a vote on such subsidies this year, and McCain opposed it. (It was paid for by retracting a 2005 tax cut for oil companies.) Can't Obama criticize McCain for that position? It would be inaccurate to say that McCain opposes those measures, but it seems fair to point out where his record contradicts his rhetoric.
The education and energy ads are slightly unfair, because they focus on McCain's votes or old positions and ignore his current positions. But that's very standard in politics. You might say that McCain's attack on Obama for wanting to raise middle-class taxes is no worse. However, McCain is citing a budget resolution that envisioned a tax hike, which is not quite the same thing as voting to raise taxes. Plus, he seriously misstates the income levels of those who would have been effected by the budget resolution had it been an actual budget. On top of that, and most dishonest of all, McCain repeatedly says that Obama plans higher taxes on the middle class, which is false.
McCain's defenders are trying to do what malfeasors of all kinds tend to do: muddy the waters by retreating to moral relativism. No, Obama isn't a saint, and I certainly don't recommend his ads or campaign statements as a source of unbiased voter information. And the media certainly ought to call him on his distortions, like the Spanish-language ad. But there are clear distinctions here, and they matter.